‘Best of Enemies’: When Politics Was All About Men

Best of Enemies

Written by Ren Jender.

When the media or an individual claims Donald Trump is the Republican presidential candidate who most directly scapegoats marginalized groups, I think of all the decades Republicans have wallowed in their slander of queer and trans people. That slander is a big part of the reason I have no tolerance for hearing or reading that Democrats and Republicans are “just as bad” as one another and why I don’t see people who vote Republican and Republican candidates themselves as adorably quirky, the way white-guy, late-night talk show hosts seem to.

Out queer writer Gore Vidal was prescient in discussing the danger of self-labeled “conservative” Republicans (“reactionary” has always been a better term for them). In 1968, as part of network news coverage of the political conventions Vidal debated William F. Buckley, the loathsome “conservative” stalwart perhaps best known these days for his proposal in The New York Times, during the the peak years of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, that infected people should be forcibly tattooed with their status on their buttocks and forearms. In their debates, Vidal describes Buckley’s rhetoric as “always to the right and almost always in the wrong.”

The debates are the focus of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary Best of Enemies, released last year and streaming this month on pbs.org, but anyone looking for context on either man’s opinions (like Buckley’s views on people with AIDS) will have to look elsewhere. The curse of gotta-hear-both-sides “balanced” journalism that legitimized the presidential campaign of Donald Trump is very much in evidence in Best of Enemies, as we see white guy after white guy lionize Buckley (so few women are in this documentary that one wonders if the filmmakers counted the woman in archival footage asking Buckley on Laugh-In, “Do you think mini-skirts are in good taste,” or the woman in a white bikini shown from behind on Miami Beach, as part of the film’s gender balance). He employs many of the same methods we see Trump using today, though Trump’s speeches are on a middle-school reading level, so he doesn’t have Buckley’s much vaunted vocabulary (which Vidal points out Buckley uses to distract, not illuminate).

Vidal wrote incisively about the debates and Buckley in an article in Esquire (which stung Buckley enough that he sued the magazine). One of the essay’s many truths leaps out in the wake of current events — and recent debates: “…There is a demagogic strategy in all this. If one is lying, accuse others of lying.”

Vidal came from the same patrician background as Buckley (Vidal was the grandson of a senator and the step-brother of Jackie Onassis) so like native Californian Joan Didion writing on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, he was able to get under the skin of Buckley and look into his corrupt soul:

“…Joe Kennedy’s sons and Senator Gore’s grandson changed as they made their way in the world, learned charity or at least good sense, but not Bill — he is still the schoolboy debater echoing what he heard in his father’s house…”

Best of Enemies

During a final debate when Vidal angered him, Buckley said in his affected, nails-on-the-blackboard accent, “Now listen you quee-ah, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” What most riled Buckley in that Esquire article was Vidal’s implication that he was a closet “quee-ah” himself. Vidal cites two gay publications of the era which outed Buckley, and later writings (including novelist Alexander Chee’s wonderful remembrance of working as part of the coterie of gay cater waiters in the Buckley residence in the ’90s) have implied the same, but those avenues remain unexplored in this film.

The film applies its misguided, “even-handed” approach when portraying both men in later life. We’re supposed to see Vidal as pathetic and mostly forgotten (even as his late biography Palimpsest was one of his best-reviewed books) but hanging out in an Italian villa with a young, cute “friend” seems a much more pleasant old age than the one Buckley evinces in later clips when he tells Charlie Rose he’s ready to stop living. Although the film states the election of Ronald Reagan was a triumph for Buckley, as time progressed more and more of Buckley’s opinions (his support of Joe McCarthy, his view that Martin Luther King belonged “behind bars,” and something he says in the debate “Freedom breeds inequality”) were discredited, so much so that they seem like they could have been written for The Onion.

Buckley died before Vidal did, and Vidal was able to give him the send-off Buckley earned, “RIP WFB — in hell.” But really Vidal had written Buckley’s obituary years before in Esquire, when he described Buckley’s on-air homophobia during their debate:

“…In full view of ten million people, the little door in William F. Buckley Jr.’s forehead suddenly opened and out sprang that wild cuckoo which I had always known was there but had wanted so much for others, preferably millions of others, to get a good look at.”

Ren Jender is a queer writer-performer/producer putting a film together. Her writing, besides appearing on Bitch Flicks has also been published in The Village Voice, The Toast, Rewire, xoJane and The Feminist Wire. You can follow her on Twitter @renjender.